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We’re being hit by a wave of films supposedly based on real life. Some are provoking complaints that they misrepresent what they claim to depict. The real Captain Phillips was anything but an all-American hero, according to some of his crewmen. The nuns vilified in Philomena say they neither sold babies nor burned adoption records. The Butler purports to be based on the life of a real manservant; however, the latter’s mother wasn’t raped, racists didn’t murder his father and his son didn’t die in Vietnam. Even Oscar frontrunner 12 Years a Slave has had its accuracy questioned.
Saving Mr Banks (out in a fortnight) presents another potentially painful case. The film shows Walt Disney prising the rights to the Mary Poppins books from their author, PL Travers. In this version, her reluctance stems from creative concerns and childhood issues that Walt resolves through caring counsel; when Travers sees the Julie Andrews movie (spoiler), she realises how foolish she was to resist. In real life, however, she exclaimed tearfully: “Oh God, what have they done?” Thus, Travers has been doubly traduced by the House of Mouse: first it turned her books into schlock; now it’s done the same to her life.
There is nothing new about such travesties. Film-makers have grown ever more assiduous in verifying costumes, hairstyles and decor, yet they continue to show a breezy disregard for the histories these things garnish. The resulting solecisms have provoked noisy huffing and puffing. Now, matters are being taken further. Hollywood studios are said to be hiring scholars as “history assassins” to undermine the awards prospects of rivals’ movies. One Harvard professor was reportedly paid $10,000 by an Oscar marketing firm to uncover contenders’ factual transgressions. His findings were to be fed discreetly into the blogosphere as academicians mulled the shortlists.
Film-makers caught out by such exercises are often accused of being ignorant, sloppy or lazy. This is, of course, nonsense. Screenwriters don’t spend months or even years researching their subject matter without acquiring a grasp of the basic facts. They falsify their material deliberately: their task isn’t to portray the truth, but to construct stories.
Reality is complicated, messy, shapeless and ethically ambiguous. Stories, on the other hand, have beginnings, middles and ends, and digestibly simple plots. They boast clear-cut heroes and villains. They tend to deliver a happy ending and, with luck, a comforting moral as well.
Films, even if “based on fact”, have to be stories rather than chronicles because this is what audiences want, as focus groups testify. Perhaps you think filmgoers are more sophisticated than Hollywood realises, and could handle the intricacy, uncertainty and moral complexity of real life without turning a hair. Some directors think so too. Their producers soon put them right, or they slope off to make arthouse fare for audiences numbered in dozens.
People know what’s going on and they don’t really care. The indignation that distortions arouse doesn’t usually last long. Those history assassins are on a hiding to nothing. Anyone actually interested was aware that Argo played fast and loose with the facts; it still took $230m at the box office and won best picture. No one begrudged Daniel Day-Lewis his Oscar on the grounds that the real Lincoln didn’t go riding through battlefields amid piled-up bodies. We’re assured that a bit of cinematic licence can’t matter much: it’s only the movies.
In fact, cinema’s re-envisioning of reality matters a lot. Its versions of history aren’t laughed off by a sceptical public. Because they have been made so palatable, they are eagerly swallowed. The big-screen lie becomes the world’s definitive truth. Stephen Frears admits he has no idea what went on at Balmoral after Diana’s death; yet, he says, people treat The Queen‘s account as incontrovertible. The absurdities of Braveheart may have given Scottish chippiness a shot in the arm. The Patriot‘s false portrait of Redcoat atrocities doubtless did its bit to shape attitudes to the Brits.
In view of the damage such fallout can cause, you might wonder why so many films are “based on a true story” in the first place. A confrontation between pirates and a container ship captain could have been dreamed up without recourse to a real-life incident. However, it wouldn’t have had the impact of Captain Phillips. Reality bites, even when it’s impaired. Imagine The King’s Speech, The Social Network or Zero Dark Thirty stripped of their roots in fact. It is no accident that biopics have delivered more than half of the best actor and actress Oscars of the past decade.
Authentification, however spurious, performs a vital function. Stories are preferred to reality because they make life seem safe, orderly, just and inspiring. Unfortunately, we know that stories have been made up, which rather spoils this effect. To secure the reassurance we crave, we persuade ourselves that the narratives that comfort us are actually true. Quasi-documentary credentials provide a means of achieving this.
What actually took place between Travers and Disney may not have been as it was portrayed in Saving Mr Banks. But most filmgoers would like to believe that it was; and that, as on screen, life’s woes can be washed away by niceness. The film reshapes reality to inculcate this delusion.
How dare the movies plunder real people’s lives for such a dubious purpose? You may not mind if you get reborn as a selfless hero, like Erin Brockovich. Apparently, the Queen quite liked The Queen. The real Philomena was chuffed to be represented by Judi Dench. Alan Rusbridger hasn’t complained about being portrayed as a stern crusader for truth in The Fifth Estate. Julian Assange, however, was less happy. He can sue. PL Travers can’t: she’s dead, like so many of those turned over by the silver screen, from Pocahontas to Shakespeare.
The process involved goes back a long way. In his own day, Shakespeare wasn’t a victim of it: he was one of its most formidable perps. Fans of Richard III are still struggling to rescue their hero’s reputation from the only partly deserved mauling it received at the hands of the Bard.
We need our delusions, we need the stories that feed them and we need those stories validated by a dusting of bogus reality. If this means that the lives, work and reputations of unfortunate individuals must sometimes be adjusted, then that’s just too bad.
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